Note: This story accompanies two videos of the Stratton Mountain Team training, which were posted last week.
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. – Ripping down a familiar dirt road in a Toyota pickup, Andy Newell glanced at his rear-view mirror to make sure he hadn’t lost Gus Kaeding. Sure enough, Newell’s high-school classmate at the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) was right behind him, driving an SMS van with a school-bus sign on top.
The sign wasn’t active. This wasn’t a regular bus route.
Before the dust from their tracks settled, Newell and Kaeding turned onto a paved road just west of the Vermont border into New York. Newell parked his truck in the tall grass alongside a forked intersection, and Kaeding pulled off to the other side.
This was the spot, Newell decided. His coach, Kaeding walked across the rural road to discuss the details.
Meanwhile, four Dartmouth graduates emerged from the back of the Stratton van. Three of them, Eric Packer, Sophie Caldwell and Erika Flowers, earned their diplomas about two weeks earlier. The fourth, 27-year-old Mikey Sinnott of Sun Valley, had returned to the area for his college reunion and spent a few extra days training with Stratton’s new elite team.
At the time on June 24, the group didn’t have a title sponsor, but by early July, it became officially the SMS T2 Team. Kaeding, formerly an assistant at Central Cross Country (CXC), was the head coach.
The six-person squad – with U.S. Ski Team members Jessie Diggins, Skyler Davis and Newell, and Caldwell, Flowers and Packer – came to life under SMS Nordic Program Director Sverre Caldwell. Sophie’s father, Sverre dreamed up the team years ago, but seriously revisited the idea in a conversation with Kaeding last summer. Earlier this year, the two laid the framework to make it happen.
Several months later in June, four SMS skiers and Sinnott strapped on their rollerski gear for a three- to four-hour skate in upstate New York. It was the team’s second week of training together, and Newell had mapped a route just a few minutes from his home in Shaftsbury, Vt. Kaeding instructed his skiers to go easy and follow his lead.
He hopped back in the van and put it in drive. It was just after 8 a.m.
“It’s a long day and it’s been a big week for everyone,” Kaeding later said after chalking more than 10 intersections. Each time, he’d stop the van, step out and draw a big sweeping arrow. Newell knew where they were going, but none of the other skiers did.
An unseasonably hot spell in June marked their first training week, making what was supposed to be a transition period much harder. The following week, they met for five workouts and two strength sessions, including a three-hour run, overdistance rollerski, speed work and bounding intervals.
Davis, 20, worked out with them earlier that week while recovering from sinus surgery, but was in Bermuda for his grandmother’s 80th birthday when the team drove east to New York. Diggins, who recently turned 21, was in Alaska at the North American Women’s Training Alliance camp.
Kaeding explained the goal of their Sunday across-the-border rollerski was to keep a consistent pace without too much effort. He also hoped the change of terrain on seldom-used, paved farms roads would keep them entertained for several hour. If he thought anyone was pushing too hard, he planned to take lactate tests, but after checking in several times throughout the workout, Kaeding found that wasn’t the case.
“They’re doing really well, but everyone has their own things [to work on],” Kaeding said. “The college skiers coming in are still working on adapting to what it’s like to train every day as kind of your first and foremost priority. They’re enjoying not having to worry about studies, you can tell, but I think a few days they’ve overdone it a little bit and then a few days had to back off.”
Veterans like Newell, 27, were also transitioning. Last year, he and Davis – both Stratton alumns – trained with each other and some Stratton students, but the group wasn’t always available or doing what they need to. This season, Newell has eager young skiers like the 22-year-old Packer pushing him, but he’s figuring out how to get the most out of their company.
“He’s not used to having training partners every day,” Kaeding said.
The same goes for Packer, who had competitive teammates for four years, but at the collegiate level. In his second week of training with Stratton, Packer said he was feeling the effects of full-time training on a professional scale.
“I learned my lesson early in the week [when I] followed Andy for three days and three pretty hard workouts and got kind of tired,” Packer said after rollerskiing 52 kilometers with Newell and Sinnott on June 24. Those two, who both raced on the World Cup circuit last season, continued for another hour.
“It’s good to follow them around, but you have to balance it out with going your own speed,” Packer said. “It’s really important to make sure you’re not tiring yourself out too much every single day of the week so there’s some contrast between the workouts.”
That fine line is key for all of three college grads in their first season with the pro team, Kaeding said. On the women’s side, Caldwell and Flowers later teamed up with Diggins, who made an impact her rookie season on the World Cup.
“The trick, I think, is going to be finding that balance, especially with the men, where, how can you utilize Andy without destroying yourself?” Kaeding said. “As a group, when Sverre and I put it together, one of our biggest things was to make sure not that they’re just good skiers, but everyone would get along. Just adding Mikey into the mix, too, you can hear when they’re just skiing on their own, they’re talking about little things that have worked well for them in the past.”
That blend accompanied with familiarity between all its members is what Kaeding and Caldwell hope makes the team successful.
“To a certain extent, you get a good group of athletes, and especially ones who are intelligent … and really you just have to put them together, put them in an environment where they’ll succeed and the rest will take care of itself,” Kaeding said. “You see it in pieces, and as they become more and more comfortable with each other, I think you’ll start to see it pay off.”
The Big Picture
Back at the homestead, that is, the house Newell grew up in, the team ate lunch and cooled off by his family’s in-ground pool. Kaeding tried to make three-point shots from a swim float, and the others laughed as they watched from lounge chairs.
Some, like the Dartmouth skiers, didn’t personally know Kaeding before signing onto the team. But they knew what he had accomplished at CXC with former coach Jason Cork, now the U.S. Ski Team (USST) men’s coach, and how he helped skiers like Diggins progress.
Kaeding also remained good friends with Newell since their adolescent days on Stratton’s high-school team. It was a bit strange coaching him at first, Kaeding said, but Newell made the job easy. Not only does he seek Kaeding’s feedback, but Newell has also stated several times that he wants him to be his full-time coach. Right now, USST head coach Chris Grover oversees Newell’s plan, but the eventual switch could bring big-time credibility to Stratton’s elite program.
“Gus has a lot to offer as far as working on technique,” Newell said. “We’re looking at this Stratton program as a long-term type of thing so I think Gus will be around for a while and the Stratton team hopefully will be around for a while. I think we’re going to start to transition to having Gus be more of a full-time coach because we know he’ll be in this area a lot of the time, and it will be easy for me to work with him.”
A native of Worcester, Vt., Kaeding is currently a resident SMS employee, and at least for his first year, he’ll help the academy’s current nordic staff coach the high-school and post-grad skiers. So far, he’s mostly been involved with joint practices, which include about 40 Stratton athletes three times a week in the summer.
“It’s been exactly what I’ve expected,” Kaeding said of the new job after spending the last decade in the Midwest. “I’ve been close enough with [Sverre], I knew what was going to happen there. I’m familiar with Vermont, and with CXC, I was writing training plans similar to what I am now. It’s been no different, the only difference is I have to call Jason [Cork] on the phone now instead of look over and he’s in the passenger’s seat.”
The two talk regularly about everything from Skid Row concerts to Davis’ training plan.“We’ve remained pretty close,” Kaeding said. “It hasn’t been a big change besides location.”
A Minnesota native, Diggins made the switch with Kaeding, leaving CXC to train with her coach in Vermont. She was promoted to the USST A-team this spring.
“I wanted to stick with coaches that already knew me, my style of skiing, what I need to be working on and how I respond to training,” Diggins wrote in a blog post.
On Wednesday, July 11, Kaeding picked Diggins up at the airport in Albany, N.Y., and drove her to Stratton, which she had never seen before. She moved into a resort apartment with Caldwell and Flowers, and the next day, jumped into training with Level 3 double-pole intervals.
About 30 other Stratton skiers also showed up for the rollerski workout at the Ball Mountain Dam access road in Jamaica, Vt. One girl told assistant junior coach Poppet Boswell that she “just loves Jessie.”
Boswell said she should go ski with Diggins.
“Really?” the girl responded.
“So she did, and Jessie saw what she was doing and said, ‘Get in here!’ ” Boswell said.
That morning, the J2 and J3 skiers Boswell coached did about three shortened intervals while the seniors did longer stretches on a 5 k course. Davis and Packer did three out-and-back intervals along a long incline and decline, and the women, which included Diggins, Caldwell and Flowers, did about seven shorter intervals. Kaeding conducted lactate tests for the seniors at the top of the hill, trying to catch each athlete once.
“Usually double-pole intervals are on a long uphill, but this one is kind of different because there’s a downhill,” Kaeding said. “It’s good because it’s like a race.”
During their warm down, Davis and Packer showed they had a little left before the top of the hill.
“Sverre, say go!” Davis said.
Holding a clipboard with handwritten times, Caldwell gave the go-ahead. They sped by for the final pickup, and Caldwell smiled. A few minutes later, the larger women’s group opted for an extra interval, and the young Stratton athletes moved to the side to make room.
Earlier in the workout, Caldwell instructed the junior boys to start higher on the hill and follow Davis and Packer when they passed by. Assistant coach Liz Kantack kept tabs on the older girls.
“I don’t want to blow them out of the water, I just want them to feel like they got a workout,” Boswell said of the youngest athletes. “Just the exposure to the older athletes is great.”
Not Missing a Beat
Later that afternoon, the T2 Team athletes reconvened for a strength session in Stratton’s weight room, where Diggins and Davis compared their USST plans and raced across the soccer field.
Inside, music filled the room, and Diggins giggled as she danced between exercises. This was her new home, and by 6 p.m., she took a moment to reflect on her first day there.
“I had never been to this area of Vermont,” she said. “It’s really nice to jump in with a coach that already knows you, already knows, ‘All right, this is what you’ve been working on.’ Right off the bat, he can say technique stuff and he knows what key words to say for me, so it’s nice.”
She knew most everyone on the team, and toward the end of the gym session, Diggins got on the ground to show Caldwell and Flowers some plank techniques. They held each in unison for a minute or so, grimacing then relaxing when it was all over.
This kind of energy is what Kaeding expects to sustain the team, and it’s what’s fired them up so far.
“There’s been a few days where I’ve been pretty excited myself,” he said with a laugh. “You come home and you’re like, ‘Oh man, people got better today.’ ”
For a skier of any level, that’s the ultimate goal. After struggling with health issues last season, Davis said he’s feeling better than ever coming off sinus surgery, which moved bones in his nasal cavity so he could breathe. He added that it’s been great to have Newell and Packer pushing him this summer, and he intends to stay consistent in his training.
“Basically what I’ve been doing is going really well,” Davis said. “[I want] to keep on doing that and be really fit going into the fall for those big [USST] camps, Lake Placid and Park City. Going forward, I think if I feel good, I’ll race fast.”
For Packer, Caldwell and Flowers, this season is about making progress without burning out.
“I love skiing and I’ve put about eight years of my life into it more or less full time,” Packer said. “I just want to at least spend a couple years, three or four years, seeing where I can go with it.”
An engineering major who laughed about being offered a job at Stratton’s Wanderlust yoga festival in June, Packer said he can go down that career path later on.
“I’ve had my parents, a whole bunch of professors say, you should do this now, you’re not going to have a chance to do it later,” he said. “I’m really excited about it. It’s something that I love to do. As long as I’m liking it and having fun, enjoying the racing and enjoying the training then I’m going to keep doing it.”
For Caldwell, a psychology major, the decision to ski on her father’s team was relatively easy.
“I think a lot of it comes down to what makes you happiest,” she said. “I figure now is really the only time I have to give everything to skiing and I spent the last four years balancing skiing [with school]. Having a balance is great, but I wanted to try just skiing.”
That poolside and relaxation time outside of training is what these grads have soaked up so far. In June, they spent some time people watching at Wanderlust, where they also dared one another to drink beet-and-kale smoothies.
“It’s really nice to get a chance to just focus on skiing and not have the stress of school to worry about,” Flowers said. “To have the time to be able to do a workout and not worry about getting onto the next thing, you can really just focus on what you’re doing.”
The spring of her junior year, Flowers volunteered at a medical clinic in Guatemala. There, she made up her mind to pursue skiing after college.
“I thought that’s what I wanted to do when I graduated, apply to medical school and go do that, and while I liked being down there and working in that environment, I really missed ski training,” she said. “I feel like I still have a lot of room to improve and so I’m just hoping to build on that. Stratton was the perfect combination of location and teammates and coaching and support, and I think all those kind of came together.”
The three college teammates didn’t sit down and decide together, but they’re happy it worked out.
“There’s obviously a couple different options out there… but it’s kind of cool that we all ended up at the same place,” Caldwell said. “We spend a lot of time together outside of practice. We have dinner together a lot, and we all seem to get along well. I don’t think any of us have a super-hard personality to get along with so that’s been great.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.